The U.S. Air Force's decision to open the door to other rocket makers to compete for its robust launch work appears to be drawing mixed signals. Lockheed Martin is planning to ramp up its launch services while Orbital Sciences says USAF's practices are contributing to an “unfair playing field” that is tilted in favor of the United Launch Alliance monopoly.

Orbital Sciences Corp. manufactures the yet-to-be-proven Antares, as well as the Pegasus, Taurus and Minotaur launchers, which have had steady work for NASA and Defense Department missions. But they see their market space being potentially “poached” in the near and far terms owing to the “unintended consequences” of the U.S. government's decision to establish the United Launch Alliance (ULA) comprising Lockheed and Boeing in 2006, says USAF Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael Hamel, senior vice president of strategy at Orbital.

Orbital's concerns are being aired as Moody's Investors Service downgraded the company's credit rating from stable to negative, citing low near-term cash flow during the development work for a booster for NASA's forthcoming space station support work. The move also comes on the heels of multiple well-publicized failures in its Taurus rocket program.

The concerns are twofold. First, Orbital officials worry that a recent NASA solicitation for launches for several science and research missions will all go directly to the five ULA Delta IIs that have already been manufactured but have yet to be sold. This is “one of our big concerns,” says Hamel, arguing that the move would unfairly award the work to ULA rather than allowing for it to be competed among other rocket makers that have not yet been certified to compete and that could use such launches to shore up their business case.

“The real consequence here is if we are denied opportunities in this horizon over the next five to six years . . . this could really have a debilitating effect on the private launchers,” Hamel asserts. “There are a limited number of opportunities out there. And five Delta IIs scooping up five missions . . . that has a tremendous impact over the next three to five years,” says Ron Grabe, Orbital's Launch Systems Group executive vice president.

NASA began an “on-ramping” process to allow for launch providers to compete for its work; this is a different certification process from the one being used by the Air Force for its launches. Hamel says Orbital has not yet been approved for this work and could thus be shut out. But the Orbital officials suggest there is no reason that all five launches must be purchased now; two of them are not manifested until 2016 or beyond.

A distressing sign for Orbital executives is what they call potential “poaching” of small- and medium-class boosters by the Delta IV and Atlas V Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) managed by ULA. Some future missions—such as launch of the X-37, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program weather spacecraft and GPS—are suitable for a medium-class vehicle such as Orbital's Antares, says Hamel.

The Air Force, however, has budgeted for far fewer flights than are needed, says Doug Loverro, executive director of the Space and Missile Systems Center, and this could open the door for companies such as Orbital.

The Pentagon planned to purchase far more EELVs than have been allocated; the 2004 program baseline called for 137 missions, and only 91 have been manifested.

However, according to Hamel, this could produce a desire by Air Force officials to use EELVs, even if a smaller vehicle is an option, in order to make use of some of the billions of dollars put into the program thus far and optimize ULA overhead already paid for.

In stark contrast, Lockheed Martin is stepping up sales campaigns for its Atlas and Athena vehicles, and appointing space and satellite marketing veteran Robert Cleave to head the business. Taking over as president of Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services (LMCLS) effective May 1, Cleave will report directly to Space Systems Vice President and General Manager John Karas. “We think there is a need for launch in the medium range, and we think we can provide low-cost launch out of the Cape [Florida] and Kodiak [Alaska],” says Karas, who acknowledges that with growing competition “it is a tough market, but there is an opportunity there.”

The company has “Atlas and Athena on the market and available for sale, and we are going to fly a ride-share mission in 2013 from Kodiak,” says Karas, referring to upcoming availability on an Athena II flight planned with ATK. “We're looking forward to reentering the market,” he adds.

Stressing the company's track record on launch assurance, Karas says the initial focus is on expanding the small- to medium-payload market with ATK on the Athena launch vehicle family for single payloads as well as shared rides for multiple payloads. Equipped with a 92-in.-dia. fairing, Athena II is capable of lifting up to 3,775 lb. to low Earth orbit. Operating from Kodiak Launch Complex, LMCLS also plans to expand launch capability with both the Athena II and III vehicles.

Athena III will use Athena I and II elements as the upper stages and an additional ATK solid rocket motor as the first stage. The rocket will be capable of lofting satellites weighing 10,150 lb. from Alaska and 13,000 lb. from Florida, and “is better than a Delta II class vehicle,” he declares.

For heavier-lift capability, LMCLS subcontracts to ULA for Atlas vehicles. The current Atlas backlog includes the GeoEye-2 satellite scheduled for launch in 2013 and DigitalGlobe's WorldView-3 scheduled in 2014, both on Atlas V 401s.

Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), meanwhile, continues its aggressive push to gain Air Force certification to compete head-to-head with the ULA for government launches. SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says her company believes it can be certified with its Falcon 9 in 2013 and the heavy version the following year. SpaceX submitted a statement of intent to the Air Force with such a plan, but the service has not yet approved it. Shotwell acknowledges that there may be some work to do on the schedule, and “2013 will be a challenge for them.”